Following a sublime 2013 for club and country, Real Madrid’s Cristiano Ronaldo has been installed as the firm favorite to win this year’s Ballon d’Or award, due to be presented in Zurich in January 2014. Out of the three finalists – Ronaldo, Lionel Messi and Franck Ribery – Messi would seem to be the rank outsider for the first time having suffered through an injury-plagued year. It says much about the Argentinian’s class and quality that he has still made the final three, but Ribery’s domestic and European treble last season has propelled him to be considered one of the best in the world.
If the competition was based on goalscoring, there would be only one winner this year. Ronaldo has plundered 68 goals in 57 appearances for club and country compared to Messi’s 45 in 47 and Ribery’s seemingly paltry total of 22 in 52. He is top of the goalscoring charts in this year’s La Liga and Champions League and has already single-handedly taken Portugal to next year’s World Cup, scoring four in his personal shoot-out with fellow Ballon d’Or candidate Zlatan Ibrahimovic. He also has four assists in the league this season, showing that he is not the selfish one-man team that some think of him.
But it could also be said that it is not his technique that is most impressive, it is his physique. In recent years, Ronaldo has developed himself into arguably the perfect athlete. His speed is outstanding, his jumping inhuman, and his desire to win is second to none. When he is in the mood, it is difficult to see anyone getting in his way, and he wants more than anything to be the man who gives Madrid their coveted Decima, their 10th European Cup. Having fallen at the final hurdle for the last two years, don’t bet against Ronaldo taking Madrid all the way this time around.
If there is anything standing in the way of Ronaldo winning the Ballon d’Or this year, it is arguably his teammates. It is a huge stain on his CV that he hasn’t won anything at all this year, with Barcelona taking the league title, and Los Merengues losing out to Atletico and Dortmund in the Copa Del Rey and Champions League respectively. It is an individual award, yes, but there is nothing that showcases the talents of an individual quite like a bustling trophy cabinet.
There are few trophy cabinets in world football more bustling than Franck Ribery’s at the minute, with the Frenchman having won the Bundesliga, German Cup, Champions League, and UEFA Super Cup in the last twelve months. He excelled in Bayern’s demolition of Barcelona in the Champions League semifinals and has been one of the most consistently brilliant members of Bayern’s consistently brilliant team, playing just as well under Pep Guardiola as under previous coach Jupp Heynckes. He has not scored as many as either of his opponents, but topped the Bundesliga assists charts this season and the last as well as making the joint-second highest number of assists in last year’s Champions League. He may not be the favorite, but Ribery could be about to break the monopoly of the ‘big two.’
In Ribery’s case, it is his international form which is letting him down. France have been woeful pretty much down to a man this year, barely scraping through a play-off with Ukraine to make the World Cup finals. They have lost to each of the ‘big teams’ they have played in friendlies and struggled against Georgia and Belarus, with Ribery not performing to anything like his astronomic standards at Bayern. He is hardly alone – Karim Benzema has been particularly targeted by irate fans – but the best have to perform for club and country, and Ronaldo has.
Finally, there is Messi. He has missed countless key games through injury but showed the character to play when needed on essentially one leg (e.g. against PSG in the Champions League, when his introduction swung the course of the tie) and played, although not at his best, well enough to make any team in the world. It says something about how utterly ridiculously good he is that he can make the top three players of the year when injured, and having spent so much time out he will return fresh and raring to go.
But it’s not to say Messi has spent the whole year out. Closing in on 50 goals for the year as well as countless assists, he’s led Barcelona to the Spanish title and will be taking Argentina across the border to the World Cup next year, having scored 10 as they topped their qualifying group. In my own humble opinion, Messi at his best is better than Ronaldo at his and Ribery at his – combined. He may not have been at his best enough this year to lift the award for the fifth year in a row, but he will be back with a vengeance next time around.